Friday, December 25, 2015

The Favorites - Pandora's Box (#75)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Pandora's Box (1929/Germany/dir. G.W. Pabst) appeared at #75 on my original list.

What it is • Lulu just wants to have fun. Despite this seemingly simple motivation, she holds immense fascination for us as well as the characters onscreen. Her troubled past (there are intimations of both extreme neglect and abuse as a child) drives her into a hungry, unapologetic enjoyment of the present: cheerfully embracing various lovers, refusing to be tossed off as a diversion, always eager for excitement and sensation. The first hour of the film charts Lulu's rise from chorus girl to wife of her wealthy patron, and the second hour follows her fall through a variety of different locations and situations. This suggests an epic scale but Pandora's Box is more accurately described as a series of intimate moments despite quite a few crowded setpieces (the stage production, the wedding, the trial, the gambling barge). G.W. Pabst's direction is characterized by precision and focus, avoiding Murnau's ambitious scope or Lang's towering monumentalism in favor of detail and gesture. Above all, Pandora's Box is centered around the face of Louise Brooks. Film history is littered with star vehicles, many of which probably feature those stars in a greater quantity of close-ups or even screentime. Yet I'm hard-pressed to think of many other movies so utterly defined by the screen presence at their center. Pandora's Box is based on the iconic plays of Franz Wedekind, who turned Lulu into a cultural icon in Germany, and Pabst was a widely-respected director of silent cinema. In theory, the film should not be reducible to its star. And yet whenever Louise Brooks is on screen, it's as if everything else exists as a frame for her charisma. Which is...

Why I like it •
Sometimes you need to see a star in an actual movie before you really "get" them. I assumed I would respect Chaplin's work without finding it viscerally engaging until I saw a few clips and unexpectedly laughed out loud. Likewise, looking at pictures of Greta Garbo I never quite understood the appeal: she seemed too remote and impassive to be truly captivating. Then I saw Queen Christina and recognized the quivering life force that existed beneath that stony surface, something I could only understand seeing her in motion rather than frozen in a still. I think I'd seen one picture of Louise Brooks before, probably in Roger Ebert's The Great Movies, where his ravings about her screen presence seemed a bit abstract to me. Well, about a minute into Pandora's Box Louise Brooks appears in a doorway and I think I might have gasped. Yes, she's beautiful, but screen history is full of beautiful people who don't achieve the vivid effect of Brooks. This is due to a combination of factors: her lithe, graceful movements (she was trained as a dancer by Martha Graham before she began acting); the Jazz Age bob that perfectly suits her face (provided a different hairstyle in one section of the film, she doesn't quite seem herself); and the particularities of her features - those glowing eyes, and the ear-to-ear smile just as enticing when her lips are pursed. Above all, it is Louise Brooks' manner that makes her so distinctive. Silent-movie acting is usually quite remote from our sense of both performance and everyday behavior, a remoteness that often has a certain charm and usefulness. But there is something absolutely modern about Brooks' disarmingly naturalistic, unaffected gestures and expressions that hits us like a bolt of lightning. Put simply, she is an outstanding actress, a quality defined less by range than by accuracy: she inhabits this part completely and together she and Pabst turn what could be a judgmental morality play (or conversely a leering, decadent lark) into something closer to documentary observation. Lulu is not a self-conscious character at all, but Louise Brooks was an extremely intelligent individual, and the combination of her awareness with Lulu's drive creates an almost alchemical reaction. The character emerges as thoughtless without being stupid, self-oriented without being cruel, manipulative without seeming calculating, and (at least initially) carefree without slipping into naivitee - one of the most fascinating people the cinema has ever presented. And this appeal is purely a quality of the cinema, as these impressions could only be gleaned by witnessing her in action.

How you can see it • Pandora's Box streams on Hulu. Oddly enough, the DVD - released by the Criterion Collection - is not available on Netflix. I paired it with Daisies as a hypothetical double feature. You can watch a clip at 5:30 in "Jazz Age Visions" (chapter 2 in my 32 Days of Movies series).

What do you think? • Is this Louis Brooks' greatest role, or do you prefer The Diary of a Lost Girl (or something else)? If so, why? And how about G.W. Pabst - is this his masterpiece? How would you compare Pabst's style to that of other German filmmakers in the 1920s? How appropriate is the film as an adaptation of Wedekind? Does the story's structure work for you? Do you think Lulu is an entirely selfish character? Do you find her sympathetic? Do you feel the film is "on her side," criticizing her, or more interested in observing her without passing judgment? Have you had experiences like the one I describe above - seeing an actor on film and realizing their appeal for the first time? Does Louise Brooks seem very modern to you - more so than other silent era actors? Can you think of performances or moments in other classic films that feel completely modern to you?

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Previous week: La Roue (#76)

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